Schneider’s fearless picks for the timeless Leicas that ring his Westminster chimes.
“What’s your favorite Leica?” is a question I’ve been asked
several thousand times over the past 50 years, and here’s my stock answer: my
beloved single-stroke Leica M3, serial number just over 1,100,000, with 50mm
f/2 Dual-Range Summicron and goggles that I bought brand new in 1966. I own a
little over 200 cameras in all and that M3 is the only camera I’ve ever bought
with the express purpose of collecting it—all the rest are user-collectibles. I
do run a couple of rolls of film through it every year just to keep its shutter
limbered up, but most if the time my mint M3 just sits on the shelf so I can
gloat over my prized possession and marvel at its beauty.
Recently, as I cradled the comfortably rounded ends of my
now 53-year-old Leica M3 in my hands, peered through its magnificent
viewfinder, and fired off a few blank frames, another question occurred to me—what
other Leicas would I put on my short list of “favorites?” After considerable
cogitation, and batting the subject around with a few fellow Leica fanatics, I
think I’ve come up with five more, and it’s noteworthy that all 6 models listed
below mark significant turning points in the Leica’s nearly 100-year-long history.
While I’m deeply indebted to my knowledgeable Leica buddies for their astute
suggestions, please blame me if you
take exception to any of the choices that follow, or if your favorite Leica has
been omitted. And by all means let me
know your preferences so I can do a follow up piece, “Readers’ Favorite Leicas”
covering models didn’t make my personal cut.
Leica I (model A) of 1925. It’s a no-brainer
because Oskar Barnack’s masterpiece is on everybody’s short list. It
established the Leica legend and set a high standard for everything else that
followed, but it’s easy to lose sight of the sheer technical audacity and
conceptual perfection of this “simple” manual focus camera that set it apart
from everything that preceded it. For starters, winding the film to the next
frame automatically cocks the 1/20-1/500 sec (plus T) horizontal cloth focal
plane shutter for the next exposure and advances the (manually zeroed) frame
counter placed concentrically below the film wind knob by one frame—pretty
spiffy for 90+ years ago. And the fact that its high quality 4-element 50mm
f/3.5 Leitz Elmar lens was collapsible kept its body size (L x W x H) to a
minuscule 133 x 39 x 65 mm or 5.24 x 1.54
x 2.60 inches—a true pocket precision miniature with superb ergonomics that swiftly
became the connoisseur’s point and shoot of its day. At its initial U.S.
selling price of $75 in 1925 (about $1,100 in today’s dollars) most Leica I
purchasers were pretty well heeled, but it was nevertheless such a smashing
success that it singlehandedly put 35mm still photography on the map, forever
changing the course of photography.
Leica II (model D) of 1932. Many Leica
aficionados underrate the importance of the Leica II but it’s one of the most
ingenious Leicas ever devised, and it established the basic design of all
subsequent screw-mount rangefinder Leicas up to and including the last Leica
IIIg that was discontinued nearly 3 decades later in 1960. The Leica II
included a coupled short-base (39mm base length), high magnification (1.5x) rangefinder
with an effective base length (EBL) of 58.5mm, and a 50mm inverse Galilean
optical finder with a separate eyepiece, all built within the same
ultra-compact form factor as the original Leica I model A, and the 39mm screw
mount Leica Standard (model E) that preceded it! It also pioneered the
spring-loaded, roller-ended rangefinder coupling arm that follows the focusing
cams on the rear helicoids of all Leica II-, III-, and M-series Leica lenses,
not to mention scads of competitive rangefinder lenses for Leicas and other cameras.
The only thing the Leica II did not have was shutter speeds slower than 1/20 sec,
but that was remedied only a year later in 1933 with the introduction of an
alternative model, the Leica III, the first Leica with that charming little
front mounted slow speed dial.
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